The love affair that Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader, enjoyed at the Winter Olympics in South Korea has not ended now that she is back home.
But her brother, Kim Jong Un, let the world know how he felt about his sister’s rare visit to the South: When his private jet carrying her home landed this week, a military band and honor guard were waiting for her at the airport in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.
If Kim Jong Un sent his sister to the Olympics to mount a “charm offensive,” as U.S. officials feared, she did her job. Her visit was still getting warm reviews in the South on Monday.
Just a few months ago, North Korea was regarded as nothing but a menace, rattling the region with nuclear and missile tests and staging bloody political purges at home. Almost overnight, with friendly smiles and messages of reconciliation, Kim Yo Jong managed to help soften her country’s image among South Koreans, at least for the moment.
She delivered her brother’s surprise invitation for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to visit the North for a summit meeting, and Moon met her four times during her three-day trip. She held her chin up when she met political leaders and faced crowds in the South.
Her light makeup and modest, even prim clothes were a contrast to those of her fashionably dressed sister-in-law, Ri Sol Ju. “I can’t speak very well in public,” Kim said “shyly” when she was asked to give a toast during a dinner at a five-star hotel in Seoul, according to South Korean officials who were present.
Kim Jong Un “expressed satisfaction” after his sister briefed him Monday about her trip to the South.
“It is important to continue making good results by further livening up the warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue created by the strong desire and common will of the North and the South with the Winter Olympics as a momentum,” Kim Jong Un said, according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Tuesday.
Despite the intense curiosity her visit generated, little is known about Kim Yo Jong, a member of the most secretive ruling dynasty in the world. Outside officials are not even sure about her age or marital status, though she is most often said to be 30 and married.
Kim Yo Jong is the youngest child of Kim Jong Il, the North’s second leader, who died in 2011. She and Kim Jong Un studied in Switzerland as teenagers, using aliases. With a high forehead and sometimes aloof expression, Kim Yo Jong resembles her father more than her grandfather, the revered North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
It was Kim Yo Jong’s father who first noticed her political acumen when she was still young, analysts say.
In 2001, when the Russian ambassador to North Korea asked Kim Jong Il which of his sons would become successor, Kim said that his sons were “idle blockheads” and that it was his daughters who he thought had the intellect and personality to be “reliable successors,” Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea leadership, wrote last week.
Certainly, when Kim Yo Jong was in Seoul last week, she was nothing but a charmer.
Kim Yo Jong is said to have told the South Korean leader that if he and her brother meet, “the North-South relations will improve so fast that yesterday would seem a distant past.”
“I wish I could see you again in Pyongyang soon,” she told Moon at a luncheon Saturday, according to South Korean officials. “I wish that Your Excellency President will leave a mark for future generations by playing a key role in opening a new chapter for reunification.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who was leading the U.S. delegation to the Olympics, warned that the North was trying to “hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games” with its “propaganda” and a “charm offensive.” Pence mounted a counterpropaganda campaign of sorts, meeting defectors from North Korea and bringing with him the father of Otto F. Warmbier, an American university student who died last year shortly after he was released from months of detention in the North.
But his efforts did little to stop the hoopla over Kim Yo Jong.
“Kim Yo Jong from the North was a nuclear bomb with a smile,” a conservative newspaper columnist wrote, lamenting the Moon government’s treatment of a member of a family condemned by the United Nations for widespread human rights violations.
Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said, “Trump and Pence will come across more and more as grumpy old men as Kim Jong Un continues to sharpen his knife and his sister flashes that mysterious smile.”
South Korean media scrutinized every detail, including style of dress and handwriting, of Kim Yo Jong, the first immediate member of the Kim family to set foot in the South. During a government briefing in Seoul on Monday, a reporter asked whether Kim Yo Jong was pregnant, saying she appeared to have a slight baby bump.
In South Korean media, Kim Yo Jong was nicknamed “Princess” or “North Korea’s Ivanka” because of her influence with her brother. She was often compared to Ivanka Trump.
Kim Yo Jong’s trip to South Korea was her debut on the global stage.
But back at home, she appears careful not to step into the spotlight as part of a government whose monolithic power structure requires all propaganda to be focused on her brother. In North Korean television footage, she is often seen keeping to the background and darting away to avoid the camera while Kim Jong Un presides over a state ceremony or visits factories.
Even as she was being welcomed home at the Pyongyang airport Sunday, she stayed a step behind, letting Kim Yong Nam, the North’s nominal head of state and the chief delegate to the South, inspect the honor guard.
But her trip put Kim Yo Jong very much closer to center stage.
“The high-level delegation’s visit to the South has become a significant turning point in improving North-South relations and laying the groundwork for peace on the Korean Peninsula,” a newscaster on the North’s state-run Korean Central Television service gushed Monday, reporting on Kim Yo Jong’s return home.
For his part, Moon, the South Korean leader, responded with caution to Kim Yo Jong’s overtures. He is a strong advocate of dialogue with North Korea but faced doubts that another summit meeting with North Korea would help end its nuclear weapons program.
“Although the first step toward a peaceful resolution of Korean Peninsula issues has been laid, discrepancies in the positions regarding the North Korean nuclear issue still remain and there is currently no visible progress in denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” his government said Monday in a statement.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.